Star Wars Squadrons: i Have the High Sky Now!
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
In a gaming landscape bursting with bloat and filler — empty worlds and emptier side quests — Star Wars Squadrons is a testament to restraint. It isn't a live service. There are no loot boxes. Its campaign is lean; essentially a story-driven tutorial peppered with just enough Star Warsy vibes to make it compelling. And there are only two multiplayer modes.
In lesser hands this could have felt slight, even mean, but EA Motive has turned constraint into strength. (The cheaper cover price doesn't hurt, either.) Squadrons is so hyper focussed on such a narrow part of the Star Wars fantasy — going "pew pew" in an X-Wing or TIE-Fighter — that it allows itself to nail the fundamentals.
It's about pilots, dogfighting, strafing Star Destroyers, exhilarating trench runs, and yelling embarrassing stuff like "nice shot Red-Five" or "I can't shake my tail" over a headset. Nothing more, nothing less.
Like LucasArts' classic X-Wing and TIE-Fighter games, from which Squadrons channels much of its soul, balancing power between engines and weapons (and shields on Rebel ships) is an engaging juggling act. As a mechanic it adds a welcome strategic layer on top of simply being more accurate than opponents. There's exactly the right amount to think about in the heat of the moment. Compounding this, Squadrons uses 3D space extraordinarily well. By filling maps with clutter like asteroids and capital ships, it manages to avoid the worst trappings of the genre: endlessly chasing each other's tails around a giant empty fishbowl. Skilled pilots need to shift planes of orientation constantly, and some maps even play out like a cover shooter, as players weave around obstacles while health recovers and proton torpedoes recharge.
The four classes of ships are balanced across manoeuvreability, health, damage output and, cleverly, how much of the view is restricted by the cockpit UI. The TIE-Bomber may be a hulking tank, but you can see far less through its windshield. Ships all have interesting trade-offs, feel unique, and can be customised with weapons and components. After many, many hours with the game, I'm still searching for just the right loadout, which is a sign of deft balancing. The only design choice I'm not sold on is the ability to come to a complete stop. While it adds control, the unwanted side effect is camping; a poor fit for a game about fast spaceships. Players park their A-Wings at the edge of the map, nestle behind something, and spring cheap traps. It's not too abundant, but it does happen.
Squadrons also pulls off Rogue One's best trick: giving us new original trilogy stuff to experience. There's raw creativity here beyond mere facsimiles of stuff we've seen before. Yes, of course the X-Wings are film accurate, but more impressively the gorgeous spacescapes and surprisingly compelling characters in the story mode look original while also feeling authentically Star Wars.
Squadrons' gameplay core is finely tuned, and its spectacle layer nails the Star Wars illusion. Perhaps in a few months I'll long for a meatier suite of modes and maps, but, in the heat of battle, Rebel and Imperial pilots haven't had an experience this engaging since the Nintendo GameCube era.
Star Wars Squadrons is out now for Xbox One (reviewed), PC and PlayStation 4.